OPINION | Transformation of Glenbow and Arts Commons a rare opportunity

If ever there was an opportunity to elevate downtown Calgary’s status as a major cultural destination for locals and visitors, this is it, as both Arts Commons and the Glenbow undergo major makeovers.

New leaders and massive renovations set to re-energize the city's two largest cultural institutions

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Both Arts Commons (shown here) and the Glenbow Museum have new leaders and massive renovations planned. It's an opportunity to elevate downtown Calgary into a major cultural destination, says Richard White. (Richard White)

This column is an opinion from Richard White, who has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.

Big things are in place for Calgary's two largest cultural institutions — Arts Commons and the Glenbow — in 2021. Not only will plans be finalized for massive renovations totalling over half-a-billion dollars, but their new leaders will start to implement their new ideas.

Alex Sarian took over the president and CEO role at Arts Commons in May 2020, while Nicholas Bell arrived in November 2019 to take the helm at the Glenbow.

Over the past year, both have been evaluating Calgary's cultural scene and identifying ways to draw on their experience working at international cultural destinations — Sarian at Lincoln Center in New York City and Bell at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. — so their respective institutions here can become more accessible and more appealing to more Calgarians.

If ever there was an opportunity to elevate downtown Calgary's status as a major cultural destination for locals and visitors, the next five years will be it, as both Arts Commons and the Glenbow undergo major makeovers, both physically and philosophically.

Arts Commons transformation

Alex Sarian told me in a phone chat that he arrived in Calgary with his eyes wide open.

He was warned Calgary is "in the middle of an economic and identity crisis." One of his colleagues said to him, "managing Arts Commons will either excite or terrify you."

In his first few months, he has met with stakeholders internally and externally and says the challenge of transforming the 35-year-old Arts Commons into a vibrant cultural centre for all Calgarians definitely excites him.

He also is "falling hard for Calgary" and doesn't understand why people are so hard on a city that has a great food and bar scene and a great airport. He points to the new Central Library and says, "Any city that can create such an amazing building and embrace it like Calgarians have is a place I want to be."

He thinks "Calgary can be whatever it wants, if it puts its mind to it!"

While Sarian believes Calgary has the potential to grow as an international arts centre, he thinks Art Commons must be for Calgarians, first and foremost. It must provide value to residents from all quadrants of the city. With over 2,000 events a year, it must offer something for everyone at least a couple of times a year.

The new president and CEO at Arts Commons, Alex Sarian, came to Calgary from the Lincoln Center in New York City. He believes the city has the potential to grow as an international arts centre. (Courtesy Arts Commons)

His ultimate goal, he says, is to get Calgarians "to consume more arts and culture activities, be they at Arts Commons or elsewhere."

Internally, Sarian is working hard to get his board, staff and all the resident companies to understand "who we are."

"Arts Commons must be more than a building and a landlord. It must be more than the 'building you walk around;' it must become a destination — a place you walk to," says Sarian. He is hoping to instill a mantra at Art Commons of "stronger together, better together."

For Sarian, it is all about collaboration, and he thinks arriving in the middle of the COVID crisis has actually helped him, as it has forced Calgary's arts companies to work together.

He also thinks Calgary could benefit from the exodus of arts workers in big, densely-populated U.S. cities to mid-size North American cities like Calgary, as a result of COVID and the high cost of living.

If Sarian, can make Calgary more attractive to young arts workers, he will be worth his weight in gold, as the city must become more attractive again to young creative professionals.

Sarian is excited by the two-phase expansion and renovation plans for Arts Commons being managed by the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (which also managed the Central Library project).

Phase 1 will see a new building wrapped around Teatros restaurant, with a 1,200- to 1,500-seat performance space and rehearsal studios. Phase 2 will have the resident theatre companies utilize the new theater space while their spaces get modernized, with the Jack Singer continuing to be operational throughout construction.

Nicholas Bell, formerly of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., is working with a design team led by Calgary architectural firm Dialog to enhance the visitor experience at the Glenbow. (Courtesy Glenbow Museum)

He also recognizes Olympic Plaza is downtown's largest performance space, and while it isn't part of his mandate to program, he believes its success is critical to the success of Art Commons. It would be great if Arts Commons took on the programming of the plaza and converted it into an exciting urban playground with lots of everyday arts-related activities — buskers, weekend art market, live music, food trucks, etc.

The Glenbow transformation

The Glenbow Museum is 46 years old and the building's envelope is failing. That is a big deal since it houses over 250,000 pieces of art and artifacts (the largest collection in Western Canada). In addition, the building doesn't work well as an exhibition, education and event space, with its biggest deficiency being the lack of an obvious street entrance.

Nicholas Bell is acutely aware the building's shortcomings are his biggest challenge in making the Glenbow a vibrant and valued part of Calgary's cultural community.

In a telephone conversation, he was quick to point out, while most people think the building has only four floors, it in fact has eight floors, with half of the space currently used for storage of the collection and office space.

He also pointed out that the current exhibition spaces take up about 8,000 to 9,000 square feet per floor, while the actual floor plate is 15,000 square feet. This means there is potential to grow the exhibition space.

He is actively working with a design team led by Calgary architectural firm Dialog to enhance the visitor experience by opening up the exhibition and collection spaces and making the back-of-house activities more visible.

Bell is smitten with the Glenbow's huge collection. He loves the diversity of art and artifacts Glenbow's founder Eric Harvie collected — everything from southeast Asian art to artifacts from Africa and work by North American Indigenous people, as well as Canadian art. He is keen to "make the collection and the stories they tell about Calgary, Canada and the world accessible to all Calgarians, as well as visitors to our city."

The Glenbow Museum’s building is 46 years old and doesn’t work well as an exhibition, education and event space, with its biggest deficiency being the lack of an obvious street entrance. (Richard White)

In the past, the Glenbow has been criticized by some as trying to be both an art gallery and museum. Bell doesn't understand the criticism, explaining the separation of art and artifacts into art galleries and museums is something that happened in the 20th century, but historically they have always been combined. He notes most of the great international museums collect and exhibit both art and artifacts.

While Bell doesn't go as far as to say the Glenbow building is ugly, he did describe it as "a huge opaque, closed box, concrete cube, with a hidden entrance he wants to transform into a transparent space open to the street with a welcoming entrance."

Transforming the Glenbow's ugly façade is a must, in my mind. The new Glenbow has to look exciting, interesting and inviting, not just from Stephen Avenue, but from all sides.

The Glenbow's website has a conceptual image of the renovated building with a two-story glass entrance at the corner of Stephen Avenue Walk and 1st Street S.E., and plans for a café and gift shop facing the street. Work has already begun on dismantling the exhibitions on the third and fourth floors, with the entire museum scheduled to close at the end of 2021 and reopen in late 2023 or early 2024.

Not to worry, plans are being developed to offer pop-up Glenbow exhibitions in the downtown while the renovations are taking place.

A conceptual image of the new, renovated Glenbow Museum. The museum is scheduled to close at the end of 2021 and reopen in late 2023 or early 2024. (Submitted by Glenbow Museum)

Both Sarian and Bell are saying all the right things. Both are impressed and inspired by what Calgary has accomplished with the new Central Library from esthetic, accessibility and activity perspectives. Both are committed to transforming their respective institutions into vibrant people places that will be accessible (physically and program-wise) to Calgarians from all walks of life — just like the library.

And yes, they are working together, as both recognize there are synergies to be achieved by having two vibrant art centres side-by-side at the east end of Stephen Avenue, Calgary's historic main street.

This marks the third attempt at urban renewal of Stephen Avenue's east end.

The first was in the 1960s, with the building of the Glenbow, the Convention Centre and a new hotel complex, as well as the Calgary Tower and Palliser Square nearby. The second was in the 1980s, with the construction of Olympic Plaza, the Performing Arts Centre and the Municipal Building.

It will be very interesting to see what the east end of Stephen Avenue Walk will be like in the latter half of the 2020s, and how it complements (or competes) with the city's revitalization plans for the Rivers Entertainment and Cultural District at Stampede Park and East Village.

Let's hope it all works. You only get to do this once every 40 or 50 years.

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Richard White

Freelance contributor

Richard White has served on the Calgary Planning Commission (Citizen at Large), the Calgary Tourism Board, the Calgary Public Art Board and the Tourism Calgary Board. He writes a blog called Everyday Tourist about the city, and has written extensively on Calgary's urban development.